Within hours of President Barack Obama’s state of the Union speech last month, the share prices of makers of a particular gadget took off. Why? Because the President mentioned that 3D printing technology “has the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost anything”. Since then, the air has been thick with warnings about a bubble in 3D printing technology. The craze over a device that “prints” objects designed in a computer may be overblown at this point. But there is no doubt that the technology has the potential to be as disruptive as the steam engine or the personal computer were many years ago.
Although the technology of additive manufacturing — adding layers of microscopic material the way an inkjet printer delivers layers of ink on paper — has been around for two decades, it is only recently that the price of 3D printers has dropped enough to attract geeks and tinkerers. The technology, at this stage, is comparable to the period in the 1980s, when Apple and IBM PC triggered a revolution that was born out of industrial-strength servers and supercomputers. US office equipment and stationery giant Staples will soon have 3D printers to enable customers to make machine parts, art objects and 3D relief maps. Recently, Nokia tried to add fun to its new Lumia 820 handset by offering buyers a 3D printing kit to allow them to create their own custom cases.
The emergence of 3D printing will immediately provide producers of high-end goods the ability to customise their offerings and make them available on demand fast, in the same way as one can email digital photos for printing in a local shop . Already $500 3D printers are allowing innovators and designers to transform a vision into a tangible object. As the technology matures and tinkerers get more sophisticated, the nature of retail businesses selling spare parts, art objects and even equipment like coffee makers is likely to undergo significant change. Prototypes can be created by teams of designers located in different parts of the world, tested and refined more easily, allowing products to be brought to market much more quickly than in the past.
The 3D technology will pose a threat to traditional manufacturing and even to distributed manufacturing using supply chain. Since 3D printing does not require subtracting or chiseling extraneous materials, or for that matter, welding components or assembling parts, the spread of this technology will threaten many traditional manufacturing jobs. A combination of robots and 3D printing could eventually displace the model of mass production by cheap labour that has allowed countries like China to emerge as the world’s factory. The other challenge that 3D printing is sure to pose to the industry is the protection of intellectual property. Decades ago, Hollywood was rattled when Japanese dual-head video recording devices reached the market and allowed the copying of blockbuster movies. Now, compare that singular threat to copyright to the role that 3D printing could play — as a versatile and high-spec photocopier for any product whose design you wish to emulate.
Obama’s comment could prove right in more ways than one. It could trigger a social revolution.